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Postcard from North America – The worst and best of US

November 3, 2013

I’m writing this half way through a family break in the United States.

After good and bad experiences heading to Florida via Washington and heading home via Montreal on our last visit – well documented here – we opted to keep the flight costs down by travelling via Toronto this time.

fatUScop1The hop across the Atlantic with Air Canada was, we all agreed, the best long haul flight any of us had experienced with attentive cabin crew who kept us well fed and watered and excellent in-flight entertainment that made the seven plus hours literally fly by. Being able to link my new hearing aids directly to the audio output meant I could hear the three recently released movies I chose to watch very well – in fact probably the best I have ever heard such things as I was able to cut the cabin noise out virtually completely.

I had no problem hearing John McClane and his son swearing at the Russian mafia as they blasted their way across Moscow, leaving many vehicles written off in their wake, or Will Smith guiding his real life and fictional son across the hostile environment of an unfamiliar planet they had crash landed on – which is Earth 1000 years after we’ve irreparably damaged it and moved on, or indeed hearing Brad Pitt saving his wife and daughters and the rest of the human race from being over-run by the fastest moving zombies I have ever seen.

So having spent the best part of six hours watching heroic parenting and gaining expert guidance on how to save your offspring from all manner of nastiness this world might have to throw at them now and in the far future it was somewhat ironic when less than an hour after stepping off the flight I had to stand powerless with teeth gritted as a man much younger than myself treated my kids with rudeness and contempt.

Welcome to Canada, Unwelcome to the US!

We were standing at US immigration on Canadian soil, a process that up until this point had been a pleasantly efficient and ameniable one. (I have learned subsequently that it bugs the hell out of Canadians that they can be treated in such ways in their own country). Suffice it to say that this young US immigration officer is undoubtedly the rudest I have so far encountered in 30 years of international travel. The issue of rude US officials and the damage it does to the image of their country has been debated by the tourism industry for years, particularly after security clampdowns in the wake of 9/11. Based on this experience, here’s one official who obviously missed the lesson at charm school.

Even though this encounter happened a couple of days before the murder of a TSA official at LA airport, the sight of heavily armed guards at the US customs post just ahead of Immigration meant I held my tongue on this occasion.

It was a relief to pass back into Canadian hands for the flight to Orlando and also meant that we arrived as internal travellers and could step straight out of the terminal building without the usual long immigration and customs delays US airports are prone toparticularly in Florida.

Shifty Thrifty

Our next touchpoint with our US hosts was at the rental car desk. It was almost midnight Orlando time and early morning UK time and so we could really have done without the usual rental car charade when they try to upsell you on all sorts of confusing waivers and cover.

I’d booked the hire via Expedia and I’m sure both they and I believed the price at the checkout was the price I’d be paying. However, the guy at the rental desk had other ideas and was insistent that there was an additional $6 per day damage waiver that I’d agreed to in the checkout terms and conditions process somewhere.

In an economic culture where ‘I work for tips’ is still rife, I’m pretty sure the rental desk guy’s income is linked to his ability to get extra cash out of unsuspecting punters but where this is achieved through deceit rather than quality of service it leaves a very sour taste in the mouth and does not make you feel kindly disposed to your hosts.

Once in the car park, the Thrifty assistant  began to try the other classic routine of ‘helpfully’ finding us a bigger vehicle than the one we’d requested – in return for a suitable tip – but our looks of annoyance at this other hackneyed charade had him ‘miraculously’ finding just the type of midsize SUV we wanted.

Obesity – a growing US export none of us need

Fortunately the apartment wasn’t far from the airport so we were all getting some well needed sleep within an hour of landing ready for an early breakfast at a 24 hour Dennys and a trip to the local Publix supermarket to get provisions for our stay.

Both of these experiences were instant reminders of how US culture influences the world of food and drink – in very unhealthy and unsustainable ways.

Looking at the size of some of the people heading in and out of Dennys last Sunday morning, and the sheer number of fast food outlets dotted in and around Orlando, it is somewhat surprising and worrying that Florida ranks a lowly number 16 in the top 25 of the unhealthiest US states with over a quarter of adults categorised as obese.

Just flicking through the top five states on this article shows the enormous proportions too many Americans have reached – and they are the ones who can still get through their front doors into the real world and not trapped into a miserable bed-bound existence eating themselves to death.

I thought our own supermarkets in the UK were pushing the ‘paradox of choice’ to new limits but places like Publix, Walmart and Walgreens are just utterly overwhelming as isle after isle are devoted to just one product type with a confusing array of options most of which, particularly in the case of food and drink, add layer upon layer of additional unhealthiness. This excellent article from the Economist a few years back examined the perils of excess choice and some steps organisations have taken to simplify options and reduce consumer anxiety. Judging by US stores in 2013 the message clearly isn’t getting through and, somewhat surprisingly, the recession hasn’t visibly reduced the number of brands on display either. The levels of unnecessary duplication in the supermarket supply chains must be staggering and surely another unsustainable bubble that will burst with dire consequences at some point.

The point about recounting these experiences is that they are examples of how cultures can bring out the worst of ‘US’ – that’s humankind in general and not just inhabitants of the United States.

Rudeness, contempt, ignorance, greed and gluttony are never far from the surface in the world’s richest nations

The times they are a-changin’ …

Our first family visit to Florida was in early 2007 when the majority of the American people were waking up to just what an awful president George W Bush was. Two years on he left office with one of the lowest approval ratings of any US president in history and a country in desperate need of change.

Barack Obama was elected on an agenda full of ‘hope’ and ‘change’  and visiting the US again now he is well into his second term as president there are perceptible differences, even in the ‘unreal’ environment of places like Orlando – that is distorted by tourism and the legacy of Florida’s staunch Republican support during previous decades.

  • You no longer feel uncomfortably dwarfed in a midsize SUV while travelling the Florida Interstates and occasionally see a Smartcar or two. Even the Chevrolet Captiva that I was driving had an ‘Eco’ mode although other elements of the design and ride experience fell way below European and Asian standards for this style of vehicle.
  • There are recycling messages and facilities throughout the theme parks these days and more healthy options on the cafe and restaurant menus
  • Having bemoaned the lack of visible solar energy creation in the sunshine state previously I was very pleased to spot a new office campus down the road from our apartment that had a multi-storey car park covered in solar panels. Hopefully this type of development will encourage others as there are vast areas of space used for buildings and parking around places like Orlando that would be ideal locations for this type of solar farm.

This article states that Florida has the highest rates of domestic energy consumption in the US and illustrates the enormous potential for renewable energy. Since 2009, Florida Power & Light has been building solar farms but the State itself still remains one of the few yet to pass a Renewable Portfolio Standard, which would encourage the growth of clean energy by requiring utilities to generate a certain percentage of their power from renewable sources.

This last week, the US Food and Drugs Agency has announced it is banning trans fats. Fortunately this is an issue that is unlikely to face much resistance from the powerful food industry lobbies and is hopefully a step in the right direction to improve a cultural and big business driven export that is in many ways as damaging to global health as the American Tobacco Industry has been.

The ups and downs of tech giants

A trip to the Mall at Millenia midweek gave some interesting perspectives on the state of consumer retail in the US as well as an insight into how well the tech giants are doing in their ongoing battle for hearts and minds.

In contrast to the premium outlets that were packed on our visit a few days later, the Mall at Millenia, which is full of the premium brand main stores was virtually deserted.

The one place that had drawn a healthy crowd however was the Apple Store which was on the lower floor of the Mall. Directly above the Apple Store was a Microsoft store which copied the layout and presentation of its competitor underneath virtually identically. It’s the first Microsoft branded store I have seen anywhere in consumerland and judging by the fact it was completely empty of potential customers probably means we won’t be seeing many elsewhere. (I have subsequently seen this scathing Forbes article about Microsoft stores that echoed my own immediate impressions).

makerbotWhat the Microsoft store had that the Apple one didn’t however was one of the early generation of domestic orientated 3D printers. Not only was it proudly on display but connected to a Microsoft tablet PC and actually busy printing stuff – in three dimensions 🙂 This particular model was the Makerbot Replicator 2 that I’d been reading an article about on the flight over a few days earlier.

It’s the first of this type of machine I have seen working in the flesh and it was extremely impressive. Some of the previous intricate output from the device was displayed on the desk for anyone to pick up and examine and included complex shapes and interconnecting chains of material that demonstrated just why this technology is set to revolutionise many aspects of our lives.

As tactile, elegant and smart as the latest phone, tablet or phablet product from Apple and Microsoft is, they were both well and truly trumped for my heart and mind on this particular US trip by IBM’s ‘Think’ exhibit at Disney’s Epcot 

Housed in the Innoventions section of the main Epcot park buildings, the exhibit was based on the 100 icons of progress that IBM used a couple of years back to promote its 100th anniversary – an excellent campaign that I commented on here. The touch screen displays were very engaging and informative and the technology enabled visions it described in the immersive video presentation really did make me ‘think’.

On the day of our return back to the UK when I am completing this blog post during airport downtime I have noted that it was 30 years ago today that Bill Gates introduced the world to Windows. This article makes some good points about the iconic nature of Windows and its significance in computing history. Microsoft is a company that has lost its way somewhat over the last 10 years, as IBM has done during its 100 years history, but I’m sure it will bounce back in innovative new ways.

In awe of Atlantis

There is part of Florida just 40 minutes drive from the theme park nirvana that illustrates the US at it’s very best – The Kennedy Space Center.

Since my first visit back in 2007 the Center has received well over $100 million of investment to improve the visitor experience and house Atlantis, one of the six shuttles built as part of NASA’s 30 year program that ended in 2011.

At a newly designed entrance area opened earlier this year stands a blue granite fountain with an extract from John F Kennedy’s famous moon speech in 1962 laser cut into it.

For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. 

The speech itself inspired the massive efforts of the Apollo moon missions which in turn led to the conception of a reusable spacecraft in 1969 and the public announcement of the shuttle program in 1972.

After entering the Atlantis building between a full scale replica of the distinctive orange clad fuel tank and reusable booster rockets, the build-up to the reveal of the shuttle itself follows a similar approach to that of the Saturn V rocket at another venue down the road from the main space center complex. It starts with a reconstruction of the shuttle program back story that illustrates the ups and downs of the design and build process over the 12 year period up to the first launch in 1981.

AtlantisFrom there you enter a large arched auditorium, the front half of which becomes one big projection screen where you are immersed in the visual history of Atlantis itself, from its first launch through to its various operational successes. The last sequence of the presentation contains stunning footage of the shuttle in orbit around the earth with its payload doors open. As the projected image fades and you see through the screen to the building beyond, it is replaced by the real view of Atlantis suspended in the same orbiting position as the footage. The screen rises and you walk through to view this amazing machine in all its mission weary detail, the impact of its 33 climbs and descents through the Earth’s atmosphere scarring its protective surfaces.

Unlike the Apollo missions that had a singular purpose to get men on the moon, the shuttle program was all about supporting scientific study in space and particularly bringing the world together to build, support and use the International Space Station. The Atlantis exhibit emphasises this contribution with a full size replica of the Hubble space telescope that has given us such iconic images of other parts of our universe and also an excellent display that brings to life what life is like for astronauts living and working on the International Space Station which has now been inhabited continually for over 13 years.

I found this 4th visit to the Kennedy Space Center the most inspirational of all as it really serves to illustrate that once we get beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, space exploration brings out the best of ‘US’ – that’s humankind in general and not just inhabitants of the United States.


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